In praise of naughty dogs
I stand near the apple tree remembering how she once dug a hole so deep that only her tail was visible. I recall the dirty lolling tongue, the muddy legs, as she traipsed her handiwork all through the house, my breath catching with joy as I watched her canine self unfold.
6 min read
Our life with dogs is beset by moral conundrums that arise from the cohabitation of two species, the wellbeing of one of whom rests in the hands of the other: the extent to which we restrict their autonomy (it’s not a matter of if, but how and by how much); the necessary suppression of some their innate instincts so that they can adapt to life in a home; the tensions between assumed developmental stages and the individual’s coping ability in the face of that thing at this moment, and so on. These are the contradictions that stem from the fundamental imbalance of power between us, and even where care is our foundation and empathy our method, we’ll be faced with moments at which we must decide whether to restrain, restrict, impose, even if merely for their own safety. Within such a framework, our focus can be diverted onto the important question of how we teach them to the detriment about reflections on what and when.
In societies in which dogs live within the home as companions, there’s a tendency to categorise canine behaviour and even canine preferences as good or bad: to monitor and judge the dog’s interactions with other dogs and humans based on perceived “friendliness;” to subscribe to beliefs about how they ought to deal with perceived threats; to pathologise signs of uncertainty or assertions of boundaries. Not only can this place a tremendous burden on the guardian, at the same time it imposes on the dog an expectation that facets of their existence will be predetermined: they will like all humans, play “nicely” with every other dog, not jump up, walk by the side of their person, always come when called, and keep their teeth off the furniture and their business outdoors.
The shelter volunteer reaches out towards her; she reluctantly accepts the proffered treats. “All she needs is a gentle hand.” All she wants… has anyone ever enquired this of her?
Many of us will have been socialised into desiring relationships with animals that emphasise deference over connection; that kind of messaging surrounds us. Our first toys are often replicas of animal bodies—tactile, passive, comforting. As children, we develop non-reciprocal relationships with them that will likely inform our relationships with the individuals they represent, and just as these toys are mere replicas of the real thing, common discourse around living with dogs often seeks to transform them into mere replicas—tactile, passive, comforting—of themselves. The dogs living among humans come to be infantilised, touched without consent, constrained as default, while the view that they strive against us in a struggle for power and control persists.
“Can I pet her?” I saw the head turn as this strange human approached. “Sorry. She doesn’t want to right now.”“Please,” she appealed, as though I were denying her a right of access. “I’m good with dogs; they like me.” “Her body language says no” I stepped forward to block an incoming hand. A few minutes later she approached to ask again: “But she’s so pretty.”
This tension is the kernel of the human relationship with dogs: claims that they are man’s best friend “proven” in expensive pet-shop purchases designed to simulate the natural behaviours from which they’re impeded, played out against shouts of “no,” “leave it,” “get down,” “don’t;” against prongs and chokes, shocks and citronella. The insistence that the “furbaby” whose freedom is already so desperately curtailed be trained into a “mannerly” (read: “compliant”) being who abrogates their own interests, desires, and preferences comes to dominate talk of raising puppies. Engineered by human design to be infantile, dependent, aesthetically pleasing, regardless of the impediments that causes them, as a species we mould our companion dogs into love objects—beings who exist to be receptacles for the outpouring of human affection and who, therefore, must love all humans, including strangers, in return. The expectation is all too often that their love for us be manifested through their obedience as a mark of their visible gratitude, and when it’s not, they suffer for not keeping up their side of an agreement to which they never agreed in the first place.
“She doesn’t like people?” he asked. “She likes her people; she’s just wary of strangers.” A look of pity tinged with (did I imagine this?) suspicion: “What happened to her?”
Those of us who love dogs and who seek to live ethically alongside them might strive to resist these cultural norms, but we’re bound to brush up against the edges of moral discomfort throughout our lives with dogs. With an awareness of the extent of the power imbalance that exists within that relationship, the desire for an external pillar of support is understandable. But with the pursuit of such support comes other risks: of absorbing ideas that don’t necessarily align with our own values; of thinking that all dogs should or shouldn’t behave in certain ways; of comparing our dogs to others (whether real or idealised); and of adopting standards that only come into our field of view because so many others seem to adhere to them without question.
Even where we shed the discourse of dominance over our dogs, too many paradigms of living alongside them still exhibit relics of a desire for control. The common view of this interspecies life is still beset by the imperative to teach our dogs not to chew this, not to touch that, not to climb on the other. Fix the behaviour, change the behaviour, extinguish the behaviour, prevent the behaviour that’s currently manifesting, and safeguard against the unwanted behaviour that hasn’t yet appeared but that might if you’re not “careful”…What results is a desire for solutions to problems that weren’t problems until someone else outside of the relationship suggested they were, and once that whirlpool starts sucking us in (it’s difficult to resist if we feel responsible for their wellbeing) the danger is that our entire view of our lives with our dogs will become tainted by it.
She was, in many ways, the “perfect dog.” “No trouble,” quiet, unassuming, unassertive. I don’t know how many years of neglect it took to make her that way, but the three years I had with her were barely enough to begin to undo it. With every new piece of learning I travel back to those years with her and ask “would this have helped? Is this what I should have done?” It takes me two years after her passing to unlearn that tendency; there are no easy answers.
There may be questions that we can formulate to unlock ourselves from the ways of thinking that we’ve inherited: questions about why we want to change or teach a certain thing, about who benefits and how, about potential disadvantages and risk, about who the dog is and what they enjoy, about whether a particular practice respects that individual, about choice, about compromise, about other available alternatives. These are questions that necessitate reflection, enquiry, and careful consideration of both parties in both the relationship and the life that they lead together. There will be the sting that comes not only with seeing anew, but also with seeing the spectres of those rejected ideas appearing like shadows on the wall of one’s own practice. But this is a small price to pay to be released from the burden of shame that arises from the perception of others about how our dogs ought to move through the world and when.
The benefits to the dog of extricating them from under the weight of should will be obvious; the benefits to us of shedding the burden of the expectations of others will allow us the soft landing into our own values. But for the partnership, the opportunity to observe and experience who our dog really is, and how our bond manifests; the chance to explore and enjoy shared pleasures; the savouring of moments of togetherness that we will later lament have been too few—these are the things that we will come to treasure when they exist only in our memories.
I wanted her to be a “naughty”dog. A counter-surfer, a scavenger, a coffee-table chewer, a window-barker, a shredder, a joy-of-being-a-dog dog. But perhaps that wasn’t fair. As I pick up the remains of a de-stuffed toy from the floor I look at the dog sleeping on the sofa. The dog who saves up his best profanities for the postman. The dog who has dug a hole in the sofa cushion as he adjusts it to his comfort. The dog who has a tongue that can snake over the rim of any plate for an illicit taste. Someday these tendencies may become priorities for our work together, just as other things that we’ve worked through once were; but not yet. Meanwhile, humility is the ability to recognise that the ones with whom I’ve chosen to be connected have all been perfect versions of themselves, and that it is my task to help them live in a world designed for humans in ways that honour that.